My heart beats for Tuli
The Tuli Block is a conservation area and wildlife paradise in the easternmost corner of Botswana. It borders South Africa so you can easily visit for a long weekend. We got stuck on arrival and almost stayed forever!
This looks like trouble, I think to myself. But I can see a Land Cruiser on the other side of the Motloutse River, so I figure there will be someone to help us if we get stuck.
I’m driving the magazine’s Renault Duster and it’s not the 4x4 model. As capable as it has proved to be on the gravel roads of southern Africa, the Motloutse River poses a different kind of challenge. I’ll have to build up momentum to get through about 70 m of soggy, muddy tracks, followed by about 100m of sandy riverbed. The Land Cruiser is in the sandy riverbed section. To the right of the Cruiser is a rocky ridge in the riverbed called Solomon’s Wall, but unfortunately I’m not feeling full of wisdom today…
As I steer the Duster into the river, my girlfriend Alice Inggs goes quiet next to me. Too quiet. I, on the other hand, turn into Sarel van der Merwe. I can feel my moustache growing and I accelerate like a race-car driver.
I manage to keep up the momentum through the muddy tracks, but now the Land Cruiser – and its four passengers who have climbed out to cheer us on (or so I tell myself) – is in the way. I don’t want to leave the tracks because I know the adjacent sand will be even deeper. But I have to stop. And then we’re stuck.
Fortunately the Land Cruiser people are friendly. Once they’ve stopped laughing at us, I lower the Duster’s tyre pressure and reverse a little so I can gain more momentum and I drive through the rest of the riverbed without a hitch.
Lesson learnt: Don’t tackle the Motloutse River in anything but a 4x4. “Tlou” means “elephant”, after all.
The smell of lion dung and coffee
The riverbed drama is soon forgotten. Now Alice and I are sitting on the banks of the Limpopo at Limpopo Camp in Tuli Game Reserve, and we’re as relaxed as seven Sundays.
We drove here from Francistown yesterday, in gloomy weather with the odd rain shower. There are few public roads in Tuli Game Reserve and you can’t drive the others in your own vehicle, so we parked the Duster in a safe spot near the Pontdrift border post and Jimmy Tlou picked us up in the lodge Cruiser.
We reached Limpopo Camp late in the afternoon and we decided to move our guided game drive to the following morning, since the weather hadn’t improved. We braaied under leadwood trees in front of the lodge (basically a big house) and now we’re having coffee before Jimmy picks us up for the morning game drive.
If you stay at Limpopo Camp (or at any of the four other lodges in Tuli Game Reserve), a game drive is included in the rate. Jimmy, his Cruiser and the lodge staff are all at our disposal: Modise Mafadza lights the fires and keeps the yard clean and Samma Tlou (Jimmy’s wife) and Sadiko Keletso Mangogola
make up the cooking team.
You don’t have to cook. You don’t have to drive. You just have to relax. You can sit in the back seat with your camera and ask Jimmy to stop so you can photograph a lilac-breasted roller. A bit closer. A little bit more. Thanks, Jimmy. Click.
We see impala, wildebeest, blackbacked jackal, a zebra, an eland in a hurry and ostriches in the distance. But despite all the fresh, plate-sized spoor, it takes a while before we see our first Tuli elephants. They’re four young bulls and they take turns to wrestle with each other. Friendly tussles, with an underlying message: Let’s determine who the main bull is now, so we won’t have to fight about this for the next 30 years…
Jimmy switches off the engine and we watch as one ellie places his trunk against his rival’s forehead, almost lovingly. I hear a clink as their short tusks touch – like when you put away a coffee cup in the kitchen cupboard. As they wrestle, the one manages to push the other one back a few paces. The “loser” turns his back and walks away. This is the life of an elephant.
We also see four young giraffes. Mother giraffe watches over the children while some others graze further away. Later, Jimmy turns into the veld to show us bat-eared foxes.
Eventually we reach a rocky ridge where we stretch our legs and have coffee. Alice and I brought some leftover steak from last night, which we slice into tender strips. While we snack, Jimmy follows a game trail into the veld – walking among tree euphorbias and shepherd trees. He returns with a pot shard – proof that people lived in this water- and mineral-rich area long before colonial borders were drawn up. On the other side of the Limpopo is Mapungubwe National Park in South Africa. Further east, across the Shashe River, is Zimbabwe. The Limpopo and Shashe rivers form the borders between South Africa and Botswana, and Botswana and Zimbabwe.
About 500 years ago, however, this region was part of the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, which had a trade route to the coast. Ivory and gold from the interior were transported to the coast, and Swahili and Arab traders brought products from the Middle East and China to the wealthy residents of the kingdom.
Jimmy breaks my reverie: “Would you like to see fresh lion dung?” We follow him for about 80 m along the trail. Jimmy thinks the dung might be from this morning. It’s still morning and Alice and I are suddenly very alert to our surroundings. Jimmy says there’s a lioness in the area and she has two cubs, but they’re very shy and seldom seen.
We head back to the Cruiser while some elephants snap branches off trees nearby.
The smoke will find you
We don’t make the same riverbed mistake the next day. Instead, we follow a slightly longer but considerably better road to exit Northern Tuli Game Reserve. (Tuli Game Reserve and Mashatu Game Reserve are the best-known private reserves within the borders of Northern Tuli – see page 38 for more information.)
This other road crosses the Motloutse River upstream from Solomon’s Wall and the going is much easier. The sky is still overcast, but sometimes the sun breaks through to highlight one of the koppies in the rolling bushveld.
We join up with the tar road again (see map on page 38) and follow it for a while before turning right to Limpopo River Lodge, where we’ve booked a campsite for the night. Yes, you can explore this wild corner of Botswana without staying at an expensive lodge.
The easiest way to reach this part of the Tuli Block is via the Platjan border post between Botswana and South Africa. If you cross there, you can be at Limpopo River Lodge within 15 minutes. The Zanzibar border post is also a good option.
Limpopo River Lodge is situated on a long, narrow strip of land that stretches north of the Limpopo for 9 000 ha. We see elephants upon arrival. Trunks reach into the air as calves and cows drink at a waterhole near the road. When one cow trumpets and walks over to our vehicle, we wave politely and drive away.
It’s late afternoon when we get to our campsite. We’re the only guests tonight, but the caretaker is ready for us. The water is hot in the private bathroom and our stand has been raked clear of leaves. (Each of the six stands has a private bathroom with a shower and a toilet.)
The open-plan design of the bathroom deserves a medal. There’s enough space for you to move around in the shower, enough storage space for your clothes and toiletries, and a place to sit down to put on your socks. There’s also a half-metre gap between the wall and the roof so you can watch birds while you lather up.
The Limpopo flows past quiet but strong – South Africa is only 80 m away on the opposite bank. A white-browed robin-chat sings its last song for the day and a troop of baboons settles down in some big trees nearby. The darkness intensifies and before long I hear the kwirp of an African scops-owl.
We prepare dinner under the stars: spaghetti with fried onions and garlic, home-made tomato smoor and a tin of tuna.
I wake with the birds the next morning. Bulbuls. A hadeda in the distance. Swainson’s spurfowl. And waterbirds like pied kingfisher and black crake. Doves coo, a tropical boubou clears its throat and a crested barbet starts to krrrrr, joined by a common scimitarbill and a Meyer’s parrot. I see a big bird alight in a treetop on the opposite bank – maybe a whitebacked vulture. Somewhere in the distance I can hear an elephant.
It’s not just nature sounds drifting on the quiet morning mist of the Limpopo River. I can hear a tractor, too – there must be a farm on the South African side. But somehow the sound isn’t intrusive.
Last night I added a thick mopane log to the fire, and now I hold my hand over the ashes to feel for life. The ashes are still warm. I bend down and blow, turning the embers red. I add a few twigs and blow until I feel dizzy. A small flame. Another one. I add thicker twigs. Fifteen minutes later, my feet are warm and flames are curling around the mopane log again.
Alice is having a lie-in this morning. I get the kettle. This is the last campfire of our Botswana tour and my last cup of coffee can’t be brewed on the Cadac… I put the kettle on the fire and sit back in my camping chair. The smoke follows me and I move my chair. It follows me again and I move my chair again. Eventually, I give up. It doesn’t matter if the smoke finds me. I came here for campfires, after all…
See page 86 for more information about places to stay in the Tuli Block.